The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Spiritual exiles “against the grain”

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : April 30, 2019 - 17:05

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What is the role of an intellectual or a writer in a turbulent society? In his monumental book, “Representations of the Intellectual,” Edward W. Said eloquently illustrates what it means to be an intellectual in times of social and political turmoil. He contends that the intellectual should be a spiritual exile in his own society, who can “speak the truth to power” despite the threats of ostracism and even imprisonment. Said maintains that the intellectual should say “No!” not only to power-wielding politicians but also to the conforming masses who roar “Yes!” In other words, the intellectual should always be against the grain, not moving with the tide, in times of socio-political mayhem. According to Edward Said, the intellectual who joins the masses, chanting, “Yes!” in unison is no longer an intellectual.

The same thing goes for writers, too, for by their nature they are spiritual exiles as well. In her celebrated poem, “History of Korean Literature Without Me,” poet Kim Seung-hee exhibits the rebellious spirit of writers, “In the era of meaningless pure poetry, I did not write pure poems/ In the era of socially-oriented poetry, I did not (could not) write socially-engaged poems/ In the 1980s, the a la mode period of Korean poetry, I did not write deconstruction poems/ In the era of commercial love poetry, I could not (did not) write love poems/ In the era of politically-charged poetry, I could not write political poems.” Then the poet concludes, “In today’s parlance I am the sold-out esthetics/ That stood by dictatorial ideology/ I never knew my sin was so hideous.”

Indeed, in Korean society, Kim’s stance is surely regarded, if not condemned, as a sin. That is why sometimes I wonder if other Korean intellectuals or writers, too, could say the above lines. Very few, I presume. Nevertheless, we should have many intellectuals and writers who can proudly say, “In the era of right-wing military dictatorship, I did not (could not) remain silent or submissive / In the era of the leftist administration, I sharply criticized the government as well./ In the era of anti-Americanism, I was not anti-American/ In the era of anti-Japan sentiment, I did not hide my friendship with Japanese intellectuals / In the era of radical political ideologies, I did not (could not) subscribe to dogma/ In the era of ultra-nationalism, I pursued globalism and transnationalism.”

Both Said and Kim maintain that the intellectual and the writer should be subversive and aloof from the mainstream of politics and the collective movements of the masses at all times. But that does not seem to be the case in Korea. Whenever the election season comes, we find the presidential campaign camp is full of professors and writers who want to gain political power by supporting the future president. Newspaper reports said that in the last presidential election, approximately 1,500 professors and writers gathered in one candidate’s camp. Surely, that is hardly normal.

Of course, you can contribute your talents to your country when the government asks you to do so. According to Said and Kim, however, working in the presidential election camp in order to be appointed a government position later is far from what intellectuals or writers should do because intellectuals and writers should function as critics to political power no matter who seizes power.

Unfortunately, Korea is a group-oriented society and thus being subversive or against the grain is often an unpardonable sin. Thus you are guilty if you are not an anti-Americanist in the era of anti-Americanism and if not an anti-Japan person in the era of anti-Japan sentiment. Likewise, you are guilty if you refuse to be swept up by a nationwide campaign, whether political or literary. Many Koreans have a marked tendency of belonging to a group, rather than staying alone. We also tend to be nice and friendly only to one of ours, while exhibiting hostility to others who are not one of us.

That is why in today’s South Korea, people are divided by two groups that condemn each other vehemently. For example, if you do not endorse the current government’s policy, you are accused of being a pro-Japanese national traitor. If you express support for it, you will be condemned as a pro-North Korean communist sympathizer. Either way, you are considered a sinner in a Korean society where differences are not tolerated.

In today’s Korean society, you would surely be ostracized if you are not one of “us” or do not support the will of the crowd. Still, however, intellectuals and writers are not supposed to fear not being accepted by a group. Tzvetan Todorov once said that all the great intellectuals and writers are those who refuse to belong to one group or one category, who are not afraid of being alone and yet are never lonely. The intellectual and the writer should be spiritual exiles even in their own countries. And they should be against the grain.

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine. -- Ed.